The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
“I was in a caucus with James Eastland. He never called me ‘boy,’ (but) called me ‘son,’ ” stated Joe Biden affecting a Southern drawl to imitate Mississippi Senator Eastland.
Biden was comfortable being called “son” by a white supremacist. Eastland, who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan-affiliated White Citizens Council, was an avowed racist and one of the worst senators in history. Biden chortled recounting the story but he would not be so gleeful if he were black and Eastland called him “boy.”
Biden fondly recalls civility in the 20th century Senate. The Senate was an elite club for wealthy white males when Biden entered as a first-term Senator.
Biden deferred to Eastland because Eastland chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee. He asked Eastland to prevent school integration to facilitate his reelection. In a 1972 letter to Eastland, Biden wrote: “I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help during this week’s committee meeting in attempting to bring my antibusing legislation to a vote.”
Biden was neither a segregationist nor integrationist. He was a transactional leader with reelection as his overarching goal. Biden followed Sam Rayburn’s pithy aphorism: “if you want to get along, go along.”
Biden practices realpolitik which encourages politicians to concentrate on what’s feasible and pragmatic rather than what’s ethical and moral. Realpolitik lacks a moral anchor. While Biden supports civil rights and gender equality, winning is most important. Realpolitik blinded Biden to Eastland’s fundamental flaws.
Eastland adroitly leveraged his power as chair but he was never considered a Senate giant. The giants of the 93rd Senate (J. William Fulbright, Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Jacob Javits) had firm principles, intelligence and gravitas. Biden was a junior senator who genuflected toward colleagues with committee seniority.
What’s the difference between partnering with white supremacists in the Senate, apartheid leaders from the National Party in South Africa or Nazis in the German Bundestag? Each has deeply problematic attitudes about the humanity of people of color, Jews and gays.
These partnerships present moral quandaries. Partnering implies a moral equivalence between the democratic supplicant (Biden) and racial supremacist (Eastland). Proverbs 13:20 states: “He that walks with wise men shall be wise: but a companion of fools shall be destroyed.” Stated more succinctly “you are known by the company you keep.”
Two structural issues help explain the Senate. The Constitution awards each state two Senate seats. The 577,000 residents of Wyoming, 7.2 million residents of Arizona and 40 million California residents all have the same number of votes. Small states are less diverse, whiter and skew male with narrowly based economies. Small state elections are less competitive, which allows their senators to accrue seniority. These factors disenfranchise voters of color. They also grant small-state senators (Biden, Eastland) disproportionate power.
Nate Silver has identified another problem. Small state senators receive the highest percentage of campaign funds from corporate political interests. This makes them more beholden to corporate PACs. Skewed campaign funding and the anti-democratic bias contribute to our unrepresentative Senate.
My mother, and aunt were raised in segregated rural Georgia. They explained politics with a simple but profound truism: “you can’t hide with the chickens and hunt with the foxes.” This adage applies to a duplicitous Joe Biden. Biden flocks with chickens during campaigns and hunts with foxes after the election. He is not a bad person but his character is open to question.